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How should the U.S. improve opportunity for young men of color?

February 27, 2014 at 6:22 PM EST
Leaders from different sectors of American life convened at the White House to help launch an initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper,” meant to address challenges facing young men and boys of color. Gwen Ifill discusses the effort with Gail Christopher of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Eddie Glaude of Princeton University.
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GWEN IFILL: Leaders from the corporate, philanthropic, arts, faith and sports worlds gathered at the White House today to address a single issue: the challenges facing young men and boys of color.

The issue has become a key priority for the president.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The bottom line is, Michelle and I want every child to have the same chance this country gave us.

GWEN IFILL: When President Obama uttered these words during his State of the Union address, this is who he had in mind.

Christian Champagne is an 18 year-old senior at Hyde Park Career Academy on Chicago’s South Side. He plans to go to college and hopes to become a lawyer. But, as a young black man, he faces challenges steeper than most: high incarceration rates, low high school completion, and unemployment dramatically higher than the rest of the population.

But Christian and the other young men like him who traveled to the White House this week hope to buck that trend. They are all part of a program called Becoming a Man, or BAM.

CHRISTIAN CHAMPAGNE, “Becoming a Man” (B.A.M.): BAM was needed because it helps young black men to become great and get goals in life. It was more than needed, in my opinion, and it should be worldwide.

GWEN IFILL: BAM is one of dozens of programs nationwide that will be part of My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative focused on young men of color announced today at the White House. Twenty-eight foundation executives are pledging $200 million to support literacy, school and criminal justice reform and jobs programs to help young men like Christian.

CHRISTIAN CHAMPAGNE: I would probably be still a little less me, to say — I don’t want to express my feelings that much, so I would be blank as a page.

But now I can, like, talk to people and have conversations with everybody. Without hope, you have nothing. You can have, like, goals, but, like, you have got that — that hope to get you there.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Obama says My Brother’s Keeper will be part of his presidential legacy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is an issue of national importance. It’s as important as any issue that I work on. It’s an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for president, because, if America stands for anything, it stands for the idea of opportunity for everybody, the notion that no matter who you are or where you care from, or the circumstances into which you are born, if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country.

(APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: The announcement comes well into the president’s second term, and almost exactly two years after George Zimmerman killed Florida teen Trayvon Martin in an incident that transfixed the nation and the president, who spoke after Zimmerman was acquitted of the crime.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.

GWEN IFILL: Even before the Martin incident verdict, the president had connected with BAM, which provides counseling, mentoring and violence prevention to more than 1,400 students in 36 Chicago public schools.  This week’s White House trip is now their second visit to the home of the world’s most famous black man.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I explained to them that, when I was their age, I was a lot like them. I didn’t have a dad in a house. I made bad choices. I got high, without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses.

Sometimes, I sold myself short.  And I remember, when I was saying this — Christian, you may remember this — after I was finished, the guy sitting next to me said, “Are you talking about you?”

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: As part of the new initiative, the Obama administration will also evaluate existing government programs. But much of the effort will be focused on community efforts like BAM.

The University of Chicago’s Crime Lab found that a year in the BAM program increases graduation rates by 10 to 23 percent, and has cut violent crime arrests by 44 percent.

Marshaun Bacon runs the Chicago program.

MARSHAUN BACON, “Becoming a Man” (B.A.M.): It’s more economically incentivizing to fund programs like this to prevent crime and a lot of the social ills than to lock people up, incarcerate them, and really try to give people a shot before things get bad.

GWEN IFILL: Nineteen-year-old Kerron Turner is interested in a career in mortuary sciences or archaeology. BAM, he says, helped him deal with depression. 

KERRON TURNER, Becoming a Man: It’s like where kids get off their mind and things that they’re going through, they release it, and I guess they feel better from it. Well, it worked for me so far.

GWEN IFILL: The goal, to make it work for a lot more young men in a lot more places.

Each of the foundations that signed on today gets to decide which projects they will fund. But, as the president said today, there are broader underlying questions.

Yesterday, I discussed some of them with Gail Christopher, vice president for programs at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University.

Welcome, Gail Christopher and Eddie Glaude.

I want to start with you, Gail Christopher, because the Kellogg Foundation has a lot of money invested in this project. Why is it essential? What is important about it?

GAIL CHRISTOPHER, W.K. Kellogg Foundation: When we look at the disparities that our young men of color face in terms of opportunity and access to opportunity in this country, it doesn’t bode well for the future of the nation.

Young people of color make up about 23 percent of the population between ages 10 and 17. Yet, they make up over 50 percent of those who are incarcerated in the juvenile and sometimes criminal justice systems. They are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school.

The data is clear that there are underlying factors that are limiting opportunity for this population group. And these underlying factors need to be addressed.

GWEN IFILL: Why are the solutions in the hand of the private — hands so much of the private sector?

GAIL CHRISTOPHER: They really aren’t. The solutions are also in the public sector.

But they aren’t really focused in a specific way around this population.  There are work programs. There are employment programs. There are all sorts of things. There are health programs. But they really haven’t been examined thoroughly enough and focused in on the needs of this population.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Glaude, if you agree with Gail Christopher that this is a serious problem that needs addressing, whose responsibility is it to address it?

EDDIE GLAUDE, Princeton University: I think that’s the perfect question to ask.

We do know that there is a crisis engulfing young people, young people of color in this country.  And I think it’s the responsibility of Americans, and I think it’s a responsibility of government. Part of — I’m excited about the initiative, but I’m skeptical.

I’m thinking — I’m skeptical about it, in the sense that it seems to have bought into a particular frame, that kind of public-private partnerships are the answers to public problems. And it reflects, I think, sister Gwen, that it reflects, I think, a troublesome notion of government that we have to displace and dispel.

I think we actually need something more robust on the public side to respond to the crisis. And I’m not so convinced that the private sector, and in partnership with the public sector, can address the crisis at all of its levels, if you understand what I mean.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Gail Christopher about that, because you funded a report that came out in 2006, some time ago, which reached a lot of these conclusions then. What is different about what is being proposed now?

GAIL CHRISTOPHER: I think it is unprecedented that we have the bully pulpit of the highest office in the land, that the president of the United States is drawing attention to the scope and the scale and the nature of the issue, and that’s important.

When you have lived long enough and worked in these issues of social justice, you know that it takes a lot of time. Sometimes, it takes decades to bring attention to and really mobilize and solve a problem.  So we recognize that it’s been a long time coming and that communities have been working hard on the ground, but too often in isolation, without the support of the broader community, the philanthropic, the private, and the public sector.

This is really an all-hands-on deck moment for us as a nation.

GWEN IFILL: Eddie Glaude, I have to ask this. Do you think — she mentioned the fact of having the bully pulpit at the White House. Is it significant in any way that a black president would be the one heading up this initiative, and does it make a difference? Is there enough?

EDDIE GLAUDE: Well, I think it’s significant on its face. I hope it will play itself out in a substantive way.

But let’s be very clear. We can talk about public-private partnerships as being at the heart of the housing crisis. We can think about the 1968 HUD Act. And part of what that act involved was public-private relationships designed to increase homeownership among black folk, black Americans.

What was the result? The creation of an emerging market with predatory lending, right, behaviors and practices that led to billions of dollars of loss within black communities in the 1970s, predating, right, the housing crisis of 2008.

So, part of what I’m suggesting here is that we believe in this country that public-private partnerships can be responsible for maintaining the public good, securing the public good. But we see what public-private partnerships are doing with regards to public education.

And I think we need to understand that this crisis, this crisis that has everything to do with unemployment, that has everything to do with the failure of the education system, that has everything to do with structural, systemic racism in terms of the criminal justice system requires a robust response from the government.

But we are living in times — and we have lived over a few decades — and I don’t want to take too much time here, but for the last few decades, we have lived in a moment where the conception of government being an active — playing an active role in ensuring — ensuring the public good has been under a relentless assault.

And part of what I hoped with this initiative — but it was a hope against hope, to invoke Du Bois — was that we would somehow break out of the frame.  But, instead, the frame has limited the scope and in some ways limited our imagination.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Gail Christopher, are you more optimistic than that? And I want to ask you about one particular piece of that as well.

But, first, are you more optimistic?

GAIL CHRISTOPHER: I am more optimistic.

But it’s because the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is not in denial about the issues of racism in this country. And we have been working over the last five years, actually the last 20 years, on the issues of men and boys of color. But, very specifically, we learned after trying the service model and the policy model and the philanthropic model that we won’t make progress until we deal with the underlying issues of racism and structural racism, and actually lead the nation in an effort to heal the legacy, the perception of a difference in value of human beings, which is racism.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you both about one specific thing, piece of this, which is, say, recidivism, that we hear a lot about the “cradle to prison” pipeline, but it turns out that sometimes it becomes the “prison, back to the streets, back to the prison” pipeline as well.

What in this initiative, starting with you, Gail, would actually address this in a lasting way?

GAIL CHRISTOPHER: Communities have to be able to embrace the young men that return to the communities. They have to be able to be employed.

That’s one way to break the cycle of recidivism, even access to proper medical care, including mental health care. There are models all over the country where they have beefed up the services within the community, and they have provided access to health care and mental health care in particular, which helped to break to cycle and reduce recidivism dramatically.

So there are ways to do this. And I couldn’t agree more that it is a public responsibility, as well as a private responsibility.

GWEN IFILL: And, Professor Glaude, how do you measure improvement on things like this?

EDDIE GLAUDE: Oh, well, we can measure it by just looking at the data, right?

What we have to do is look at the number of young men of color returning to prison. Look at the numbers of young boys of color who find themselves caught up in the juvenile system. We can measure it by way of looking at graduation rates, admission rates to higher education.

We have the standards of judgment, of evaluative measures to see whether or not this project will work, this initiative will work. But I want to be very clear. We’re returning our kids to opportunity deserts, where social networks have broken down, where public service — the social service delivery institutions have failed, where public schools are being closed, where — as William Julius Wilson at Harvard would say, where work has simply disappeared.

So part of what this involves — I mean, in some ways, and I would like to say, and I say this not to suggest that President Obama is doing too little too late.  I don’t want to get involved in that kind of debate.

But, in effect, what we are doing is putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. And I guess Band-Aids are OK. But what we need is a more robust discussion, a more robust policy initiative to address the crisis that is engulfing, I know, particularly black communities, right, and black men, right?

And, so, part of what I don’t want is a kind of market-driven solution to a longstanding social and moral problem that has defined the nation for generations.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Eddie Glaude at Princeton University and Gail Christopher at the Kellogg Foundation, this is the first of many conversations.

GAIL CHRISTOPHER: I hope so.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you. 

EDDIE GLAUDE: I hope so.  Thank you so much.